The most eventful century
in all of history was set in motion in the early 1900’s, during the years
that led up to World War I, the Russian Revolution, then World War II and
the subsequent earth-shattering events – both tragic and glorious – that would
define the momentous 20th century.
100 years ago – in 1908
– no one could have imagined what was coming. Not the unthinkable upheavals
and destruction that would ravage the earth and not the unprecedented scientific
breakthroughs that would transform the same earth.
Yet in every generation
there are the rare visionaries who, in their ultra-sensitivity, have their
hand on the pulse of their times and foresee events to come. Above all, they
provide us with a blueprint and plan for the future.
The dawn of the 20th
century was no different. During the first decade of the century, when Einstein
was publishing revolutionary theories that would forever change the world,
in a small town in White Russia the Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Sholom Dovber – 1860-1920)
was formulating a vision for the new century and developing an antidote to
the looming disease to come.
Exactly one hundred years
ago, Passover 1908, the Rebbe delivered a discourse, which identified the
attitude and work that would be needed to face the challenges ahead. At the
time no one could have known what he was anticipating. But today, in retrospect,
the Rebbe’s prescience becomes glaringly clear; now we can see how critically
important his words would turn out to be.
In this Passover discourse
titled “the voice of my beloved, behold the one that leaps over the hills”
– later delivered by his son (the Rebbe Rayatz) in 1924 and published in 1949
– the Rebbe Rashab begins with a mystical analysis of the history of the world
empires that controlled the world.
Based on various early
sources – the Midrash and the writings of the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac
Luria (the holy Arizal) – the 1908 discourse takes on our journey through
time, back to the times of Abraham.
In the words of the Bible:
“As the sun was setting, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and a deep dark
dread fell upon him. [G-d] said to Abram: ‘Know for sure that your descendants
will foreigners in a land that is not theirs for 400 years. They will be enslaved
and oppressed. But I will finally bring judgment against the nation who enslaves
them, and they will then leave with great wealth…’
What was the “deep dark
dread” that befell Abraham? Says the Midrash that Abraham was shown the future
great empires that would control and terrorize the world, each in their own
way: the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman and Ishmaelite (Islamic) empires.
The Arizal explains the
spiritual significance of these powers: These empires – that extend over the
entire span of history – represent the different stages of refinement (birur)
that we achieve throughout the generations. Everything in our material
existence contains Divine ‘sparks,’ i.e. spiritual energy, and we are charged
with the mission to redeem and elevate these sparks, and thereby refine the
material universe and transform it into its true purpose: a vehicle for spiritual
Beginning with the Egyptian empire – the archetype and root
(‘head’) of all the exiles and empires – each subsequent empire symbolizes
another stage of refinement in integrating matter and spirit. The process
concludes with the refinement of the last two powers, Edom (Esau) and Ishmael,
which leads to the Messianic age – a world where there is no more destruction
and terror and all children of Abraham serve the One G-d of Abraham in peace
We now stand, declares the 1908 discourse, in the final stage
when two empires dominate: Edom and Ishmael. Edom refers to the Western world
(descendants of Rome, Edom) and Ishmael to the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Bear
in mind that the Ottoman Empire began to dissolve in 1908, and would a few
years later join the Central Powers who fought and lost to the Allies in WW
What is the inner meaning of Edom and Ishmael? Explains the
Arizal that the refinement of Edom and Ishmael – our work today – corresponds
to the two emotions, netzach and hod, endurance and humility/acknowledgment.
The bulk of the 1908 discourse (as well as those of 1924
and 1949) elaborates on the practical application of these two features.
Two states of spiritual consciousness are possible. One,
which personifies earlier generations, is a state of revelation, when the
“Divine face” is exposed and souls are aflame with passion. In a spiritually
evolved environment, beings naturally gravitate toward the Divine; minds and
hearts are attuned to the sublime, emotions are deeply felt and lives are
dedicated to service. In such a state the higher emotions of love, awe and
empathy (chesed, gevurah, tiferet) reign.
The second state, which reflects our times, is a spiritual
awakening that comes out of a void. “There was no darker hour in history than
the one when G-d said to Moses ‘I will cover my face.”” Divine concealment
can take on two opposite manifestations: Oppressive forces dominate and destroy
everything good and pure. Or the other extreme: Intense prosperity and comfort
desensitizes man, creating instead a mood of self-indulgence, complacency
and crass materialism, neglecting the spiritual and the deeper purpose of
our lives: love and sensitivity to another.
In this latter state of
spiritual darkness (in both forms) our primary effort must be netzach
and hod. Netzach is the sheer determination and fortitude
to overcome any adversary and challenge. Hod is a profound sense,
rising from the depths of the soul, of acceptance and acknowledgment of a
Both these forces are
not due to any moment of revelation or grace. They stem from the innermost
essence of the human soul, which cries out in times of pain and discovers
the greatest resources of strength in times of challenge. Netzach
and Hod is the unwavering dedication and sacrifice of a mother for
her child in danger. It is the unconditional drive and the most precious resources
spent to vanquish an enemy. It is the unimaginable efforts we will exert when
our lives or the lives dearest to us are at stake. It is the absolute faith
in good even when facing the abyss of a gas chamber. It is the unfathomable
hope and perseverance that can be elicited from each of us when our essential
beliefs are challenged.
and Hod are in one word: commitment. Unwavering and unconditional
commitment to the things we truly believe in.
As the darkest and brightest 20th century was
about to unfold, the Rebbe Rashab (in 1908) and the Rebbe Rayatz (in 1924
and 1949) told us that these are the forces that we will need to access as
we face the challenges ahead. Despite the lack of feeling a deep connection,
an inner voice still senses a Higher presence. Today our work is such, that
even when we don’t experience revelation – our minds don’t easily relate to
the Divine and our hearts don’t naturally feel Divinity, and on top of it
all we live in a highly evolved materialistic world – we obstinately commit
with supra-rational tenacity and acknowledgement to fulfilling our mission
to refine the world.
There is a moment of truth
that comes from seeing the light. Then there are truths – the deepest ones
of them all – that are born in darkness. When things are not apparent, when
there is no revelation, when, on the contrary, oppressive forces consume us
and want to extinguish the fire of the soul, then the power of Netzach
and Hod – that are rooted in the essence – surface with their unfathomable
Yes, the essence is not
manifest in revelation. Even the greatest souls have their spiritual fluctuations.
Not so the essence, which by its very definition, remains steady, unmovable
and forever reliable, even in the darkest times and even in the blindest moments.
In 1908, when the world
stood at the brink of war and revolution, and then again, in 1924, when the
demonic forces that would destroy the world that we knew began to be unleashed
(Stalin came to power after Lenin’s death in 1924; that same year Hitler was
released from prison and came to power in 1933) – as the earth was about the
be thrown into the throes of hell – the Rebbe Rashab and the Rebbe Rayatz,
as true leaders and visionaries, declared and provided mankind with the resources
it would need to survive this onslaught.
Indeed, in 1924, the Rebbe
felt the need to add an additional few chapters to the discourse, describing
some of the terrible challenges that were descending on the world, as well
as the fortitude and commitment required to ride through them. And then again,
in 1949, when the world began emerging from the shadows and rebuilding life
following the devastation of World War II.
At the same time, the
discourse in 1908 and even more so the one in 1924 and 1949, addresses times
of prosperity as well.
Because two extremes would
define the 20th century: Unparalleled destruction and unprecedented
prosperity. We witnessed the worst of man and the best of man. Both extremes
would require unwavering fortitude and deep faith. And both are addressed
in the discourse. Obviously, standing in the early part of the century when
the harsh night descended, the Rebbe’s primary focus is on the darkness. But
recognizing that the century would also bring untold success and technological
advancement, he also addresses the best of times – briefly in the 1908 discourse,
and a bit more elaborate in the 1924 and 1949 discourses (the additions of
the latter discourse are highlighted in bold):
“Just as one needs unwavering
fortitude in troubled times, the same is true in opposite times: When a person
is blessed in all his endeavors, both at home and
at work, and his heart is lifted to great and exalted heights, endowed
with wealth and great success, with many investments and
all the anxieties connected with absorption in business matters,
despite all these distractions his heart should not digress from his spiritual
commitments, he should consistently maintain his commitments to ongoing, designated
time for study and prayer, without any alteration – with the unwavering fortitude
and resolution of Netzach.”
If you think about it,
it is absolutely brilliant advice, and it captures the essence of all the
suggestions you will ever hear in therapy or personal growth manuals: No matter
what – never waver from your good actions and commitments to positive causes.
Action reigns supreme. Even when you feel down, not in the mood, overwhelmed,
distracted – hold on with your dear life to the constructive things that you
are connected with. Because it is this absolute dedication and commitment
that will carry you through the worst and best of times. It is this fortitude
that will save your life.
Much has changed from
1908. Today, 100 years later, we are blessed with freedom. No outside enemy
lurks. Yet, we also do not live in a world of Divine revelation. The darkness
today is within. Complacency, apathy and the forces of cool reason and science
– that cool down any passion and justify a purposeless life. With all our
comforts and prosperity – and rational excuses – our souls can feel quite
empty. As we focus on outer success, it seems that our inner lives suffer
in direct proportion. Whether it is a crisis of love and intimacy, lack of
commitment or passionate cause to fight for, there is no doubt a profound
void. And who suffers most? Our children.
So as we prepare to enter
Passover 2008 – and celebrate the Seder in an unbroken chain that spans back
3320 years when the Jews first left the Egyptian Empire – we have a clear
directive and blunt regards from exactly one century ago, declaring the calling
of our time:
To be persistent and to
be accepting of our Divine mission – even when we don’t feel it.
Let us gather with families
and friends and celebrate the continuity of the Seder. If you don’t feel anything
– exert some effort to make the Seder come alive. Personalize it, engage in
dialogue, provoke and be provoked. Make it relevant. And even if you don’t
always succeed in the fullest sense of the word – do it anyway. With a lightness
of spirit, and the firm belief that we are reaching our destination: personal
and global redemption.
Commitment is the call
of our times. Consistent, absolute dedication is the antidote to the arbitrary
circumstances and unpredictable changes in the ever-shifting universe in which